Failure Immunity: The Vaccine for your Mind

What in the hell are you doing?” – Random man in the courthouse

“I’m kicking my ASS!!!! DO YOU MIND?!?!” – Fletcher Reed

(From the movie ‘Liar, Liar’)

‘Failure’ is a word that gets used often. Perhaps, it is overused. Sometimes, the term is weaponized toward others in an effort to denigrate, belittle, or otherwise bully someone. Other times, we may think of ourselves as failures when we fall short in pursuit of something we desire.

Failure can be constructive and destructive. It is constructive when we learn and adapt from experiences. It is destructive when term becomes a label that sticks. But, even if the label is not internalized, cycles of negative thinking within our minds are counterproductive and often have little do with reality. This can also reduce the likelihood of success.

It is generally recognized that a healthy relationship with failure is fundamental to human progress.

Are you ‘Kicking Your Own Ass?’

Ultimately, the negative aspects of failure can only hold power if the recipient accepts the feeling. When failure and self-doubt combine to garner power within the self, it can be crippling.

Many people even develop the habit of ascribing the ‘failure’ label to ourselves, without any outside pressure.

Talk about beating ourselves up.

Kicking your own ass.

Before you chuckle about the image of Jim Carrey’s famous scene in Liar, Liar, or some other lunatic managing to get into a physical altercation with himself in a courthouse bathroom, let’s recognize that you may not be completely innocent.

Unpacking Failure

Failure can be defined in objective and subjective terms. Objective failures are easy to identify and understand. In these cases, a goal is set either internally or externally. If you reach it, you succeed; if you do not, you fail.

You may let someone down by breaking a commitment. This is an externally defined goal. For example, a company who pays for your labor may expect a certain level of output. Occasionally we all fail to meet expectations. This is objective failure. It is visible and often manageable.

With subjective failure, the impacts on our self-esteem and confidence can be more pernicious. They can also be more difficult to recognize. This cycle of negative feelings makes progress toward goals seem elusive or blurry.

Head in the Clouds

People rarely think of themselves as failures, but they often lack the ability to create momentum.

Do you know someone who wants to be a famous writer, athlete, actor, musical artist, or something similarly wild? These goals are so abstract and unclear that action is either never taken, or when it is, the steps do not lead the person any closer to the goal. When these people wake up no closer to their lofty goal, they become discouraged.

Some may call these people, daydream believers. Their goals are either undefined, or unrealistic. The subjective definition of failure is an insidious beast which can derail hopes and dreams.

This is the type of failure for which we must develop our immunity.

Negative Self-Talk

Even if you are not a daydream believer, when progress is not happening, it is easy to become negative. Have you ever played a sport and thought, “ugh, what is wrong with me?” Or, “I always mess up.” This type of dialogue within the self is a flirtation with the concept of kicking your own ass, Jim Carrey style.

You would not accept someone else talking to you this way, yet so many people talk to themselves in a self-abusive manner.

Your Relationship with Failure

“I’ve failed over and over in my life and that is why I succeed.”  – Michael Jordan

Failure is often correctly touted as a prelude to success. For example, you may know that Michael Jordan was famously demoted from his high school basketball team. Obviously this sort of demotion was a failure to someone as competitive as Michael.

Kobe Bryant had a similar story in his younger years. He apparently only averaged 13 points per game in 8th grade and was told by critics, that he “wasn’t very good.” Clearly that label of failure did not stick. Some people thrive when they are motivated to prove critics wrong. Others take the criticism to heart and crumble.

Despite failing at one point, both men are widely regarded to be the best in the world to ever play basketball. Although they may have carried a chip on their shoulders, they used early failure to motivate them, and it worked.

Do not try this at home, kids.

The Failure Vaccine

“Fortunately, if you’re designing your life, you can’t be a failure.”  – Bill Burnett and Dave Evans1

The vaccine for failure is easy to access. It is in your mind. It’s immunity will remain with you as long as the mindset remains with you. In concept, it works a lot like a vaccine to something like, say, Covid-19. However, in practice it works a bit differently.

Failure Vaccine.

So, how does this really work?

True failure can only occur when a standard is defined and not met. This can be dealt with accordingly. But it is the subtle nature of subjective failure that poses the real threat. To immunize yourself from failing you must either declare a realistic standard for success or to not declare one at all. 

If you can convince yourself that success is a process, rather than a static outcome, the concept of failure looks dramatically different.

If you approach success like a series of trial and error action-steps that aim toward a desired outcome, or goal, you can align your expectations in such a way that failure is no longer a threat. You can also develop the curious mindset of a learner.

These approaches remove pressure and inspire constant action. As long as this mindset persists, your psyche will see the results of your actions differently.

Replacing Failure

To defeat failure, it must be defined in a similar way to how your immune system defines pathogens. When a vaccine familiarizes your body with a pathogen, the body builds a relationship with the invader. Our minds work the same way against negative concepts like failure.

Much like a vaccine cannot prevent infection from a virus, failure can still strike those who are “immune.” However, like the vaccine prepares your body to fight off the virus, the right mindset prepares you to cope with setbacks in a healthy and positive manner.

Re-Defining Failure

Fortunately, your definition of failure is malleable and entirely within your control.

If your goal is to learn, discover, and grow professionally, failure is not a relevant constraint because you can control your expectations and optimize your actions. Are you putting unnecessary pressure on yourself? Are you putting the goal before the process of discovery and learning? Are you kicking your own ass?

Many people subjectively define their own failure either by not setting a clear expectation, or from recurring habits of self-doubt. This is no one’s destiny. It is a barrier to modern thinking that must be managed.

Everything is not possible, but anything that you desire is, as long as it is realistic.

The next time you feel like a failure, learn to recognize it’s proper place in the story of your personal development. Jordan and Kobe both were able to do this, along with many others. Once failure is seen for what it really is (often an illusion), proceeding to the next step on your journey is easy, and fun.

When you are immune to failure, there is no need to hesitate on taking the next step. Notably, the next step does not even need to be the correct. It just needs to be in a sensible general direction.

As long as this next step is taken, congratulations, you are immune to failure.

Further Reading:

1 In “Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life,” Bill Burnett and Dave Evans dedicate an entire chapter to the concept of “failure immunity.” It is well worth the read.

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